Simple Gifts: The Shaker Way to Cook and Eat
The Shakers did "sustainable" way before sustainable was cool. And they thought local before the word locavore was invented. "Why send to Europe's distant shores for plants which grow at our own doors?" asks one Shaker catalogue.
During the 19th century and into the 20th, in communal agrarian villages across the Northeast and Midwest, the Shakers prepared nearly all of their own food, abhorred waste and were thrifty with resources.
The Shakers — or the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing, as they called themselves — splintered from an English Quaker community in 1747. Ann Lee, a young English woman, led the sect, which got its name from the rhythmic swaying and ecstatic dancing of its worshippers.
In 1774, Mother Ann, as her followers named her, and eight other Shakers emigrated from England to America, settling near Albany, N.Y. In 1787, the members withdrew from mainstream society to establish the first Shaker community in New Lebanon, N.Y. By the 1840s, 6,000 people were living in 19 highly organized Shaker communities mainly in the Northeast, Ohio and Kentucky.
In all the communities, men and women lived separately. The women who prepared the food were called "kitchen sisters." They cooked for large numbers. In some Shaker villages, 300 sat down for meals.
The Shakers left many recipes for simple, wholesome food prepared with exactness and imagination. At a time when the typical American diet revolved around fatty, preserved meats and starch, the Shakers understood nutrition. They emphasized natural, unadulterated food, whole grains, fruits and vegetables. Things recognized today as nutritious — cooking many vegetables with skins on, saving the liquid from boiling vegetables for soup — were routine Shaker practices.
Herbs grown in large, tidy gardens just outside kitchens added zest and flavor. Vegetables often were tossed with herb butter, melted butter simmered for a few minutes with chopped herbs: basil on tomatoes, dill for carrots, summer savory over string beans, caraway with cabbage and parsley, or rosemary on new potatoes.
The Shakers became highly successful entrepreneurs, selling their herbs, seeds and many prepared foods, such as canned fruits and vegetables. At the end of one growing season in the mid-1800s, the Shaker community in Pleasant Hill, Ky., canned and sold more than 3,000 jars of peaches to the outside world.
Though the Shakers set themselves apart much as the Amish have, they did not reject new technology. Their inventions include a dough-kneading machine, a water-powered butter churn and a mechanical apple parer. The revolving bread oven of one community's design baked 30 loaves at once, distributing heat evenly through a series of dampers.
Each society owned as many as several thousand acres of land devoted to the hard work of self-sufficiency, reflecting Mother Ann's counsel to "put your hands to work and your hearts to God, and benefits will befall thee." Members rose before dawn to begin their day, working in the huge orchards, airy, spacious barns, workshops and large, well-designed gardens.
From 1837 to 1847, the New Lebanon ministry, concerned with animal welfare, encouraged Shaker communities to go vegetarian. However, food choices were left to the individual member's conscience. For a time, those eating a "bloodless diet" were served in one part of the dining room, those eating a so-called "regular diet" in another.
Alas, the Shakers were sustainable in all ways but one. They were celibate. New members arrived only by conversion or when a community took in orphans. By the early 20th century, unable to compete with industrialism and facing dwindling membership, the remaining Shaker communities began folding one by one. Just one Shaker village — Sabbathday Lake in Maine — still has active members. Shaker recipes, however, live on.
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